Mack Wilson thought his second NFL season — the one he believed would prove doubters wrong about the Browns' young linebacking corps — was over before it started.
Just a few days into training camp, Wilson crumpled to the ground during a non-contact, seven-on-seven period. He immediately screamed in pain and pounded the ground. He boarded a cart to ride off the field, his head in his hands as he thought the worst.
"I was just thinking to myself, 'why me?'" Wilson said Monday. "I thought I was going to be done for the season, with all the pain I was feeling."
The pain, though, would eventually subside, and Wilson started to heal at a rapid rate. After a week, Wilson had his injured knee re-examined, and it was determined he wouldn't require surgery. Instead, he was given a timeframe of six to eight weeks.
It was a blessing in comparison to Wilson's initial fears, but he still wasn't satisfied.
"I have been working extremely hard every day, with treatment and doing the right thing so that I can come back," Wilson said. "They were saying possibly six to eight weeks, so I was just telling myself every day 'I am a warrior. I am built for this. I know I will be back sooner than six to eight weeks.' So, that was my goal is to take it one day at a time, do everything they told me to do and now I am here today."
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Officially, Wilson has been sidelined for five weeks since he suffered the injury. Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said the status of the team's injured players would come into focus as the week progressed, but Wilson's return certainly fit the category of "sight for sore eyes."
"To see him back out there was really outstanding," Stefanski said. "He brings energy, he brings some skills as an athlete running around hitting people. So, excited to have him back out there."
For a Browns linebacking corps light on experience and even thinner in bodies since rookie Jacob Phillips' Week 1 knee injury, Wilson's return — whenever it is — could be a big boost for a defense that has struggled to get off the field through the first two weeks.
Wilson, a former fifth-round pick out of Alabama, took over for Christian Kirksey when the veteran was lost for the year just two games into the 2019 season. Wilson played nearly every snap the rest of the way and finished with 82 tackles, an interception, a sack and a forced fumble.
With the offseason departures of Kirksey and Joe Schobert, Wilson returned as one of the most experienced players at the position. He also emerged as a vocal leader for the group and made headlines just a couple of days before the injury discussing how the Browns' linebackers were being overlooked.
"We have been playing pretty solid, been leaving plays on the field, obviously," Wilson said. "We just have to eliminate the mistakes and correct those things week by week. As far as for our room, I would be talking to the guys and tell them, 'We have to make more plays in this room.' I feel like everybody else, the D-line, DBs, they are making plays.
"I feel like as far as me coming back, I am going to definitely try to bring some juice and do whatever I can to work my way back to playing and things like that. So, we will see how it goes."
Wilson's brought the juice ever since he realized he wouldn't be lost for the season.
Within 10 days of suffering the injury, Wilson was able to balance himself on one leg and perform a squat. He carried that momentum into an intensive month of rehab that paved the way for him joining his teammates on the practice field Monday.
Wilson said he understands the final step in the process — his return to live football action on Sundays — is out of his hands but is confident he'll be ready to perform when he's given the long-awaited "all clear."
"Obviously, it is going to be all on coach and ownership," Wilson said. "I feel I am comfortable. I can do everything that I thought I could do. Just have to continue to take it one day at a time and just go from there. I feel like I am ready."